PROVIDENCE, R.I. — While pursuing a plan for student housing in this city’s historic jewelry district, Brown University officials were sidetracked by discussions about what to do with a massive, century-old power station sitting vacant alongside the housing site on the Providence River.
The housing developer, Richard A. Galvin, the president and chief executive of CV Properties in Boston, convinced them that the structure could be redeveloped into a property that would enhance Brown’s other investments in the district, including its medical school. Lined with 30-foot arched windows, the brick building provided vast views of the river and the city beyond.
Brown recruited the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College, which were jointly looking for a site to build a nursing school, and then helped negotiations with the state to secure a long-term lease agreement. Now, a public nursing school and the administrative staff of an Ivy League university are housed together in a refurbished power station at the edge of an emerging innovation and design district.
Filling industrial-themed open work spaces completed last month, Brown’s administrative offices are now all in one place instead of scattered around its main campus on College Hill. And the nursing school, close to both the medical school and two hospitals, is able to train students in state-of-the-art health care simulation labs, complete with high-tech mannequins so lifelike they can breathe, have seizures and even give birth.
“It’s an unusual partnership — a land-grant school like U.R.I. and an institution like Brown,” said Russell Carey, Brown’s executive vice president for planning and policy. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Bruce J. Katz, a scholar with the Brookings Institution, was a co-author of a 2014 report on innovation districts, which he said were recognized at that time as a shift in the “geography of innovation” but still largely undefined. Three years later, Mr. Katz said he was “hard-pressed to come up with a city that’s not thinking about how either the hubs around the universities or these very distinctive parts of the city, usually around waterfronts, where there’s legacy from older industrial space can be converted to other purposes.”
In his experience, the biggest hurdle for these districts is getting a network of public, private, civic, academic and entrepreneurial interests to act in unison. In general, he added, “this is not about the government.”
“A lot of it is bottom up, and networked,” he said.
Officials in Chattanooga, Tenn., leveraged an ultra-high-speed broadband network installed by the city-owned utility in 2009 to start a downtown innovation district. Expansion is likely to require strengthening the district’s partnerships with the University of Tennessee and the public school system, said Mayor Andy Berke, who noted that the United States Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory opened an office in the district last year.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s going to run out of steam anytime soon,” Mr. Berke said. But, he added, “we have to pay attention to it so it doesn’t wither.”
The Providence district, which is designated by the city as a 125-acre riverfront swath, was largely born of the realignment of Interstate 195 out of the city core, freeing for development about 20 acres that intersect with the former jewelry manufacturing hub.
As part of an effort to jump-start a state economy that lagged the rest of the region in its recovery from the recession, the administration of Gov. Gina Raimondo is using significant subsidies and tax credits to help spur innovation-oriented redevelopment.
“This neighborhood was once a fount of innovation — costume jewelry products were pioneered here,” said Stefan Pryor, the state’s secretary of commerce. “We are reawakening that innovative spirit.”
To make the area feel less isolated, the state is creating a five-acre waterfront park that will link to an existing river walk through the heart of downtown, which is undergoing a residential building boom. And a pedestrian bridge being built on pylons left from I-195 will connect the district to College Hill.
Wexford Science & Technology, a Baltimore company that specializes in developing what it calls knowledge communities around major research universities, has become a major investor in the district. Wexford teamed up with CV Properties on the $220 million power station redevelopment, which includes student housing and a parking garage. (Ventas, a real estate investment trust and Wexford’s capital partner, has since bought the power station.)
And in September, Wexford broke ground on a 191,000-square-foot innovation center. The center will be anchored by Brown’s School of Professional Studies; the Cambridge Innovation Center, a Boston-area company that leases space to start-ups; and a Johnson & Johnson health technology operation.
Wexford secured about $41 million in state subsidies and tax credits for the $89 million project. The state also contributed the land, with the $4.5 million value to be returned over time, said Thomas Osha, Wexford’s senior vice president of innovation and economic development. He said the subsidies would enable Wexford to provide some innovation and collaboration space at affordable rates.
“The challenge is how to ensure you’ve got a good mix of space at a variety of price points,” he said.
With Ventas, Wexford is involved with 12 innovation districts around the country. However, Mr. Osha said, “at any one time, I am in advanced conversations with another half-dozen cities, and initial conversations with another six to 10.”
“It can be three-plus years from initial conversations to shovel in the ground,” he added.
Mr. Osha described Providence’s strengths as its proximity to New York and Boston and its “very active, collaboratively focused universities,” which also include the Rhode Island School of Design and Johnson & Wales University.
For example, the design school and the University of Rhode Island are working with the state’s Lifespan health system and Ximedica, a contract medical design company, to start a New England Medical Innovation Center in the district. Peter J. Snyder, a senior vice president and the chief research officer at Lifespan, said the center would assemble teams of engineering, design and medical professionals to develop solutions for medical needs, perhaps spawning new companies in the process.
Lifespan’s Rhode Island Hospital, an academic medical center, “is within a stone’s throw of one of the best design schools in the country,” said Mr. Snyder, who is also a scholar in residence at the Rhode Island School of Design. “We can bring them in, along with U.R.I.’s school of engineering, and run many teams with a deep bench of talent across many specialties.”
Mr. Katz said he thought most innovation districts were far from reaching their potential for employment and business growth.
“There is an intense focus at universities on, how do we get better at commercialization?” he said. “These are still early days, which I think is remarkable.”